Homeless get Tough Love "Treatment" Tactic in more USA Cities

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 14 Jun 1999 05:26:12 -0700 (PDT)


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http://www.latimes.com:80/excite/990228/t0000185861.html
FWD  Los Angeles Times - Sunday, February 28, 1999
     COUNTY REPORT

     A NEW APPROACH TO THE HOMELESS - TOUGHER TACTICS

     Cities Adopting New Policies to Get the Homeless
     Off the Streets and Into Jobs

     By FRED ALVAREZ, Times Staff Writer
                    
Convinced that soft-hearted policies will never root out homelessness,
cities across Ventura County are adopting a tough-love approach that knits
together a network of services to spur the homeless to get jobs, give up
handouts and get off the street.

The new attitude reflects a hardening belief that the old way of doing
things hasn't worked, that the patchwork of soup kitchens and cold-weather
shelters provided over the past two decades to sustain homeless people has
done little to make them self-sufficient.

Also at work is a type of "homeless burnout," a realization the homeless
are not a single, homogenous group, but a collection of subgroups, some of
which need all the help society can give while others exploit every program
created for them in an effort to avoid personal responsibility.

Impatience with aggressive panhandlers and drug addicts has led to
get-tough ordinances in cities from Thousand Oaks to Ventura.

Those ordinances reflect what is going on in communities across the state
and nation, including such liberal bastions as Berkeley and Santa Monica,
where compassion for the downtrodden is being replaced, in some cases, by
disdain for the deadbeat.

"I think we as a society are asking these people to be more accountable for
themselves," said Ventura City Manager Donna Landeros, who is spearheading
a planning effort aimed at getting the county's 2,000 to 4,000 homeless
people back on their feet.

"It's doable and now is the right time to do it," she added, citing the
double blessing of a strong economy and low unemployment. "If we can't
solve the problem now there will never be a better time."


*New Local Laws Reflect Change in Thinking

In the old days there was no such thing as a homeless person. In those
days, the term was bum. About 20 years ago everything changed with the
realization the high cost of housing was forcing increasing numbers of
hard-working, middle-class people onto the streets.

That understanding fueled a new empathy for the homeless that led to the
creation both by churches and communities of housing and feeding programs.
Some forward-thinking cities offered so many services that their downtown
areas became tent cities.

But as public intoxication and aggressive panhandling proliferated, the
empathy began to turn sour. Now, critics of the old methods say, it's time
for a more realistic approach.

In Thousand Oaks, city leaders have adopted laws to curb overzealous
panhandling, camping in public places and lying on sidewalks. In Simi
Valley, the City Council last year outlawed overnight camping on public and
private property.

And in Ventura, city leaders in recent years have banned panhandling,
camping in a flood plain and at public parks and beaches. Most recently,
Ventura police have begun cracking down on free food giveaways in city
parks.

But the new approach to homelessness is not only about getting tougher, but
getting smarter. About the need to blend intelligent compassion for those
in trouble with a firm plan for returning them to society.

Toward that end, a broad coalition of elected officials, city and county
staff members and advocates for the homeless and mentally ill have come
together in recent months to find new and innovative ways to extend
services to those who truly want or need help.

In a series of unprecedented meetings sponsored by Supervisor Kathy Long
through the Ventura Council of Governments, participants have swapped
information and ideas to develop a regional strategy on homelessness.

As one of the first steps in creating the broader strategy, Ventura
officials are pushing to extend the life of emergency shelter programs
across the county.  With such programs due to shut down next month,
officials suggest converting some of them to year-round transition
facilities that could help clients land jobs, find housing and escape the
stranglehold of substance abuse and other problems that so often derail the
drive to self-sufficiency.

Long said she hopes to deliver a report in June to the full Ventura Council
of Governments board exploring the shelter issue and outlining other ways
to plug the gaps in the system that delivers services to the homeless.

"I really, truly believe this is a regional issue that crosses all city
boundaries and requires a regional solution," Long said. "As always, it's
going to come down to some money. But it's also going to come down to some
creative thinking and it's going to come down to whether communities will
be able to knock down a few fences in their backyards."

Advocates for the homeless say they have long lobbied for that approach.

But while those with long experience in the trenches welcome the new
emphasis on finally solving the homeless problem, they caution that the
issues are complex, and cannot be addressed overnight or without
considerable expense.


*Region's Mild Climate Attracts the Homeless

Anyone who believes homelessness can be eradicated is being unrealistic,
they say. For one thing, the region's mild climate and attractive beaches
are natural draws for homeless people throughout California.

"If concrete solutions actually materialize as a result of this I will be
extremely pleased," said Karen Ingram, vice president of Lutheran Social
Services of Southern California, which provides help to homeless people in
Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks.

"But a lot of it sounds like political rhetoric," she added. "Everybody is
looking for a quick fix, but the reality is you don't get a quick fix when
there is not only one reason for homelessness and not one solution."

Truth is, there have long been homeless people in Ventura County, and the
reasons they are on the street are as varied as the efforts over the years
to help them.

Some are homeless by choice, having rejected the idea that running water
and flushing toilets are standard issue for the American dream. Others wind
up that way after bouts with mental illness or addictions to alcohol and
drugs. Still others topple over the economic ledge and plunge into
homelessness after losing a job or experiencing some other personal
misfortune.

Nowhere were those dynamics more evident than on the dusty bottom of the
Ventura River.

Until a few years ago scores of homeless people considered the riverbed
their home. They erected plywood shacks and nylon tents and lived without
worry of being pushed out or moved on.

But as the river bottom population swelled over the years, so did theft,
drug use and drunkenness.

So when flood waters destroyed the encampments in early 1995, city
officials seized the opportunity to post the river bottom off-limits. They
used federal disaster relief to set up programs designed to help the
riverbed settlers get back on their feet.

By most accounts, that effort was hugely successful. Dozens of homeless
people were able to find permanent housing and jobs.

But the rest of the homeless, the ones who didn't get the jobs and who were
still on the street, say they believe the river bottom cleanup campaign was
merely the first step in a long-range plan to run them out of town.

"It really seems like they are getting meaner," said Joyce Snow, 51, who
has been homeless for a decade. "They say they want you off the street but
then they don't give you any place to go."


*Spiral Began With Death of Parents

Snow's slow spiral into homelessness began after the death of her parents
in the early 1980s. Suffering from seizures and blackouts that left her
unable to work, she began living in her car and eventually moved into a
two-room shanty on the river bottom in 1989.

Today, she gets $747 a month in Supplemental Security Income, the federal
program for the aged and disabled. But she said that isn't enough to cover
all the expenses of moving into an apartment.

"I would love to be off the street but there's just no way," she said.

The impetus for the new, tougher approach to the homeless problem came from
the city of Ventura last year, when officials saw that even after cleaning
up the river bottom and providing federal relief, large numbers of homeless
people still proliferated downtown.

Concerned their city was shouldering the lion's share of the burden for
caring for the homeless countywide, officials began publicly complaining
that Ventura County government was failing to live up to its state mandate
to provide services for that population, especially those gripped by mental
illness or substance abuse.

Last spring, after county officials decided to stop funding an emergency
cold-weather shelter for the homeless, Ventura officials followed suit.
They contended county policies pushed the homeless into their seaside city,
saying county-issued vouchers placed many of the impoverished in low-rent
motels around the downtown and midtown areas.

Ventura's action was largely unpopular, Landeros acknowledged.

But she said west side residents and downtown merchants who had long
complained about aggressive panhandling, urinating in public and
drunkenness forced the city to act.

Moreover, she said the city's refusal to keep doing things the old way
finally forced county officials and leaders of other cities to come
together to develop a regional strategy for helping the homeless.

"I don't think that having a cold-weather shelter three months out of the
year and then pushing them out on the street and having them fend for
themselves for the other nine months is a particularly charitable way of
doing things," Landeros said.


*Hope for a Network of Year-Round Shelters

Landeros hopes the broad strategy now being developed will identify
homeless people with mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions and find
them the help they need. Under the current system, she said, such people
are lumped into the larger homeless population.

Ultimately, she said, she would like to see a network of year-round
shelters in the county's largest cities.

Landeros said Ventura is willing to spend the $40,000 that it withheld from
the cold-weather shelter toward that effort. But she warned that the only
way the city will make such a commitment is if other cities across the
county also promise to help.

"If it doesn't exist in Simi Valley and it doesn't exist in Thousand Oaks,
that is unacceptable to our community," Landeros said. "We are very willing
participants, and we are actually willing to be leaders in a countywide
network. But we are no longer willing to put our money into Band-Aids."

Such tough talk has rubbed some homeless advocates the wrong way. But even
those who initially bristled at Ventura's hard-line stance have come to
embrace what the city is trying to do.

"I don't approve of any attitude that may appear indifferent and isn't
supportive, but I would have to say that I'm a reluctant proponent of their
stand," said Susan Vinson, a member of the board of directors for the
Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Ventura County.

"It could end up dramatizing a larger problem," she said. "And if that's
what it takes to move people off the dime then I'm in favor of what gets
results."

Longtime homeless advocate Rick Pearson wants results too. As executive
director of the Ventura-based nonprofit agency Project Understanding, he
has lobbied for years for a more comprehensive approach.

But he worries the new hard line is fostering intolerance, and that in the
search for solutions there is a notion that if the cities or the county can
find the perfect program, then homelessness would go away.

He said as long as city and county leaders understand there will always be
homeless people, he welcomes a new strategy.

"If the intention is finding ways to work together to make this work, I
think that's wonderful," he said. "But I don't think there is any evidence
up and down the coast that if you become harder and less tolerant that you
significantly lessen the homeless population. All you have done is become
harder and less tolerant."


*Grant Aids Homeless in Simi Valley

Pearson and others who help the homeless also reject criticism that the
work of so-called do-gooders over the past decades has been ineffective.

As a member of the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition, Pearson
and others wrote a report in 1996 that identified homeless needs and
possible solutions. The report has helped draw hundreds of thousands of
dollars to the county, including a three-year, $453,000 federal grant to
provide more shelter beds for the homeless mentally ill and women
recovering from substance abuse in Simi Valley.

The grant also will boost job-placement services and expand the hours of
operation at Simi Valley's Samaritan Center, which assists the homeless.

Last week, longtime Simi Valley resident Lanny Brannan, 39, visited the
center to begin piecing his life back together. Shoved into homelessness
after losing his apartment and his job as a result of the Northridge
earthquake, the Royal High School graduate has been on and off the streets
for four years.

Although health problems have prevented him from driving a car or holding
down steady work, Brannan has made do with odd jobs. He slept wherever he
found a place.

But now, with the city outlawing outdoor camping and the new program in
place to help the homeless find work, he said it's time to change his life.

"I'm here to tell you it can happen at any time to anybody for any reason,"
said Brannan, who now spends his nights in a rotating church shelter due to
shut down next month. "With the new law in place, I have no idea where I'm
going to go afterward. Lord willing and the creek don't rise, I'll have a
job by then and I won't have to worry about it."

                                  
* * *

Understanding the Problem

There are an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 homeless people in Ventura County,
most of whom live in the larger cities. The following are some key
characteristics of that population drawn from surveys at winter shelters
last year and other data.

     * 82% consider Ventura County their home and 68% became homeless while
living here.

     * More than half have lived in the county for nine years or more and
75% have been here at least three years.

     * About 20% acknowledge problems with alcohol and/or drugs and about
25% reported recent arrests for such offenses as illegal camping, loitering
and being drunk in public.

     * About 25% hold steady jobs and 30% indicated they received public
assistance.

     * The county issued 3,240 housing vouchers last year to the homeless
mentally ill, although an unknown number was issued to the same people for
a night's stay at a motel. As many as 15% of the 1,400 people in County
Jail have been diagnosed with mental illness

     * Of the winter shelter population last year, 20% were children and
21% were women.

Source: County of Ventura, Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition

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